Solitary Confinement

How humane is it to lock a person – who already is likely to be mentally unstable in some way – in an empty cell and leave them alone with nothing but their own thoughts to ponder?


Imagine being trapped in a small room; the four grey walls surrounding you are all that you see, all that keeps you occupied. There’s a dingy bed in one corner, and perhaps a toilet too. Of course, like any room, there is a door. But you rarely see it open. Most of the time it stands there, mocking you, a false sense of freedom you will never be granted.

Sounds like a form of torture doesn’t it? Something out of a movie maybe.

Well, this nightmarish scenario is the reality of solitary confinement, a form on imprisonment that sees individuals in near complete isolation for at least 22 hours of their day. Their only human contact is generally with prison officers and guards but even that is minimised with meals handed to them through a slot in the door. Whilst it is fairly rare in the UK, with the longest periods individuals can be confined for being three weeks. In the USA, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 people are imprisoned in solitary confinement, most of whom are in supermax prisons with no set release date.

Solitary confinement in prisons can often be seen as a punishment for inmates who are agitators, not abiding by the institutions rules, or those who may be a threat to others. In some cases, it’s used as a ‘protective mechanism’ for the inmate themselves, so that harm is not inflicted on them by either themselves or others.

But in reality, how humane is it to lock a person – who already is likely to be mentally unstable in some way – in an empty cell and leave them alone with nothing but their own thoughts to ponder?

As you can imagine, the effects can be devastating. In the UK alone during 2013-2014, eight prisoners in solitary confinement committed suicide. Whilst this might not seem like an excessive amount, in context, it is roughly a quarter of those who were in the UK in solitary at that time, showing it’s extreme effects. One of these eight prisoners, was a man placed in solitary despite having a history of suicidal behaviour. When the guards refused to give him a book, he resorted to killing himself.

This isn’t an isolated case either; a psychiatrist, Stuart Grassain, found that one in three prisoners placed in solitary confinement show psychotic traits such as hallucinations and losing touch with reality, or suicidal tendencies.

But the psychological effects of solitary confinement aren’t exclusive to those with pre-existing mental health issues. Humans are social creatures by nature and so any mentally healthy person can experience serious psychological damage as a result of it. On top of the need for social stimulation, when people are idle for such a long period of time, and are lacking meaningful activities, the rehabilitative aspect of solitary confinement usually backfires and creates anger, and compulsive behaviours instead.

One common effect associated with solitary confinement is post-traumatic stress disorder that usually occurs when prisoners are let out of solitary and are transitioning back into the world. It can be extremely damaging, affecting an individual’s ability to function normally in the world because they are plagued with flashbacks, depressive episodes and paranoia.

So taking all of this into account, it isn’t hard to see why so many confined inmates feel they have to resort to self-injury just escape to hospital and indulge in social contact even if it is only for a little while.

These examples of solitary confinement, whilst horrific in themselves, aren’t as extreme as in other parts of the world. For instance, in Saudi Arabia solitary confinement serves a slightly different purpose and is generally what prisoners experience before being executed. As if unravelling the human psyche primes a person for their own death. Earlier this year, in October, three young Shi’a activists convicted of protesting against the government were moved to solitary confinement and are waiting their impending executions.

Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has claimed that solitary confinement that exceeds 15 days in duration, regardless of circumstances, is an act of torture and has made it a priority to tackle it.

Yasmeen Frasso

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